These days, Dan Harmon is primarily known for co-creating Rick and Morty and, while I do hugely admire that show, his previous, live-action sitcom, Community, will always occupy a far larger space in my heart.
Both series share the signature Harmon quality of complex, inventive storylines and surprising emotional depth. However, on Community, the real-world, live-action setting makes the ambitious plots more remarkable and the emotionality plucks at your heartstrings all the harder. Take it from Harmon himself, who just last year said Community was“the thing of which I am most proud of, forever and ever.”
I would even perhaps go so far as to call Community the best live-action sitcom ever made, that is, had it ended after the third season. For those of you who weren’t there, being a Community fan while the show was in production was quite the dramatic rollercoaster ride, with major behind-the-scenes drama directly affecting the series’ output. Truth be told, if you watch seasons one through three and leave it at that, you’ll come away with a solid, satisfying Community experience (and, despite writing this list, I do still, in fact, recommend you do that). That isn’t to say everything after season three is completely without merit, but, well, it gets rocky. All the same, I’ve included some episodes from every season to paint you the full Community picture.
Onto the best episodes!
Season 1 Episode 6: Football, Feminism and You
The first season is the series at its most grounded. It follows the ups and downs of a newly-formed, ragtag study group—Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs), Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), Annie Edison (Alison Brie), Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), and Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase)—as they get to know one another and their new school, Greendale Community College. Things get zany, but, for the most part, in a familiar, sticommy sort of way. Most of the wacky stuff in this season wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of, say, 30 Rock (which was concurrently airing).
Though it’s the second season that contains most of the iconic, high-concept episodes everyone remembers Community fondly for, I’m partial to the more real-world tone of the inaugural season and “Football, Feminism, and You” is a great, solid early entry. There’s a lot of wonderful interactions as the series begins to gain its footing in figuring out who these characters are and how they interact. Plus, it’s got some absolutely brilliant gags and dialogue. Importantly, this episode also sees the genesis of the Human Being, the most terrifying college mascot ever created.
Season 1 Episode 7: Introduction to Statistics
Though it would be a good number of episodes later before Community would go full-tilt into homage/parody territory, this Halloween episode is the first real flirtation with it. It’s an overall fun episode to look at with the set dressed in Halloween decorations and the characters in clever costumes.
This is the first episode directed by Justin Lin, who would later go on to direct a bunch of the Fast & Furious movies. His eye for action suits the series amazingly well, coming through especially near the end of the episode with a nod to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films that serves as one of the earliest indicators Community might have greater aspirations than being just a simple sitcom.
Season 1 Episode 8: Home Economics
Okay, this one is maybe not as essential as others on this list. Truly, I’m including it for one reason and one reason alone: it features Britta’s ex-boyfriend Vaughn (Eric Christian Olsen)’s band, Some Worries, performing the song “Getting’ Rid of Britta.”
Actually, make that two reasons, the other being that it also features the song “Pierce, You’re a B.”
Season 1 Episode 9: Debate 109
On my first time watching it, this was where Community clicked with me. It’s not that it does anything too unique; it just shows off that it’s a really well-written sitcom. It pulls the signature Seinfeld move of setting up different plots for all the characters that satisfyingly dovetail at the conclusion. Sitcom-writing is already tough enough, so any time a series goes the extra mile to successfully pull this plot device off, I’m impressed by it.
It’s also an episode that’s good for early character-building, teasing the chemistry between Jeff and Annie and giving us insight into the analytical, sitcom-trope-driven way Abed views his friends.
Season 1 Episode 15: Romantic Expressionism
Community is a very meta show that indulges in sitcom tropes while pointing out that it’s doing so and this episode focuses on the kind of bizarre love hexagon that can develop (a la Friends) when you have an ensemble cast and romantic plotlines between them. It’s a smart, hilarious episode that plays around with shipping sitcom pairings, culminating in this genius sequence of top-notch acting from the entire cast:
It’s also the episode that features the famous line, now-turned-meme, “I have the weirdest boner,” which was, amazingly, an adlib by Donald Glover.
Season 1 Episode 21: Contemporary American Poultry
An important Community turning point, this is the first episode to go full-homage. It’s primarily a Goodfellas parody, though there’s some Godfather in there too.
The study group engineers a scheme to ensure they’re the first to get the cafeteria’s chicken fingers, which normally sell out quickly at lunchtime. The scheme soon becomes a racket, transforming the study group into a chicken finger mafia. As goofy as it sounds, “Contemporary American Poultry” establishes the Community (and now Rick and Morty) signature move of fully committing to an absurd premise, but using it to reach some grounded, emotional catharsis, as it ends with a heart-to-heart between Jeff and Abed that reveals new depths of both characters.
It’s also a milestone episode because it introduces the recurring character of Troy’s pet monkey, affectionately named Annie’s Boobs.
Season 1 Episode 23: Modern Warfare
This is the one that blew the minds of everyone who had followed the show to this point. It’s a campus-wide paintball war and the characters are motivated to take it seriously because the prize for the winner is priority registration, i.e., you get first choice of all your classes for next semester. The result is the total destruction of Greendale as Community’s humble sitcom origins are all but left behind in favor of a paintballs-to-the-wall action homage.
There’s a whole lot of references, but just to name a few: The Warriors, 28 Days Later, The Matrix, Die Hard, and the films of John Woo are all alluded to. Also, though I say “action homage,” the fact is this episode—another brilliantly directed by Justin Lin—is an honest-to-goodness, great comedy-action short film.
It’s important to at least have seen some of the episodes leading up to this one. Jumping right into it in isolation, not knowing the path it took to build to this point, the show could just come off like a kooky, gimmicky, high-concept series. But to witness how Community started as a fairly grounded sitcom and yet, somehow, gradually, organically blossomed into this pitch-perfect genre movie pastiche is truly something special to behold.
Season 1 Episode 25: Pascal’s Triangle Revisited
NBC actually ordered another three episodes of Community’s first season late in the run, and Dan Harmon, not knowing if the series would definitely be coming back anyway, took the opportunity to go all-out and effectively do two big finales: the big action movie one and, this, the dramatic, romcommy one centered around an end-of-year dance.
On its own, this episode seems kind of terrible. It ramps up a love quadrangle that feels sudden and almost unearned. It nails the vibe it’s going for perfectly, but the drama escalates so abruptly it almost feels like the writers suddenly didn’t understand the characters they’d been writing all season. However, this is still an essential episode that reveals its worth once you’ve seen…
Season 2 Episode 1: Anthropology 101
It was a bold move at the end of the first season to leave fans with a cliffhanger that felt close to getting the characters wrong, but the season two premiere, rather than brush off the events that took place before it, reckons with the setup of the previous episode so well that—and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other show manage something quite like this—I genuinely believe it retroactively makes the season one finale good. The first time I saw the end of season one, I felt disappointed and a little confused, but this follow-up so handily redeemed it, that, though I acknowledge this is a weird choice and that nobody agrees with me, this is actually my favorite episode of Community.
Where “Pascal’s Triangle Revisited” indulged in melodramatic romance, “Anthropology 101” brings everything crashing back down to earth with the study group being about as nasty to one another as they ever get. Annie even punches Jeff in the face and draws blood!
It’s true this episode doesn’t quite stand on its own; it requires viewing the previous one to get the full impact, but, together, they make the best two-parter of the entire series. Plus, it has Betty White as an anthropology professor who drinks her own pee.
Season 2 Episode 6: Epidemiology
Season two is where the genre homages start coming fast and furiously and, against all odds, they’re almost all great. “Epidemiology” is a zombie episode and it’s top-tier because, no, it’s not a dream and, no, the show doesn’t later pretend like it never happened. There is a ridiculous, though plausibly-explained reason everyone on the Greendale campus turns into zombies and then later overcomes their zombiism. Basically, this episode deserves respect for pulling off a zombie outbreak in a sitcom setting without entirely shattering its universe.
Season 2 Episode 8: Cooperative Calligraphy
The one that introduced the term “bottle episode” to the wider public, “Cooperative Calligraphy” takes place entirely in the study room with only the principal cast (well, the Dean does show up briefly too). Like any bottle episode, the limited scope of the setup means its success is all the more hinged upon the strengths of the script and the actors. Luckily, Community’s cast and crew demonstrate they’re more than up to the challenge with this beautifully-written and acted episode, unquestionably a series’ best.
Season 2 Episode 10: Mixology Certification
Another personal favorite, this episode displays Community’s incredible versatility. It’s sandwiched by two extremely gimmicky homage episodes; the one preceding it, “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” is one of the silliest of early-period Community. In contrast, this is one of the most grounded and dramatic.
It’s Troy’s 21st birthday, so the gang takes him out to a bar to celebrate. Rather than having a fun, alcohol-fueled time, everyone has a depressing, alcohol-fueled time. Though there are still great jokes here, it’s impressive how dark and somber “Mixology Certification” unashamedly gets. It’s an emotional one, and one of Community’s best.
Season 2 Episode 11: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas
I’m an outlier here, but I don’t like this episode. I find it overly sentimental and not very funny. However, it’s a fan-favorite and a testament to the show’s insane ambition that the whole thing is am honest-to-goodness claymation in the style of the old Rankin/Bass Christmas cartoons. As I don’t care for it myself, I don’t have much else to say about it, but. if I’d left it off this list, people would’ve yelled at me.
Season 2 Episode 14: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Another of the series’ absolute best and another that takes place almost entirely in the study room as the group gathers around for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. It’s played pretty straight; they never do the obvious copout of cutting away to visual representations of what’s going on in the D&D game. The episode sells it entirely with great acting, editing, direction, and some well-placed sound effects. It’s also one of Pierce’s best turns as the show’s villain.
The great direction, by the way, comes from Joe Russo, of the Russo Brothers, who went onto direct some of those Avengers and Captain America things you all seem to like. The Russo Bros cut their teeth on sitcoms, including a number of Community episodes (some of which are listed here, as well as the pilot) and are responsible for why this series often looks so filmic (also because it’s thanks to their connections other great directors worked on the show).
Season 2 Episode 16: Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking
Despite being part of the study group, Chevy Chase’s character Pierce rose to an antagonist position in the second season, something which a lot of viewers despised, but which I’ve always felt was the best place for him. This episode gets dark, though in a funny way, as Pierce lies to everyone and tells them he’s dying to milk sympathy from them.
It’s also told in a mockumentary style as Abed documents Pierce’s supposed final moments with the study group. Dan Harmon wanted to do this episode to expose how this format was a comedic crutch that made it much easier to tell jokes, poking fun at all the sitcoms that had adopted it by that point, e.g., The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation. The funny thing is that this is another episode directed by Joe Russo, who had a hand in popularizing the mockumentary sitcom approach when he and his brother Anthony directed the Arrested Development pilot.
Season 2 Episode 19: Critical Film Studies
One of the strangest and most inventive episodes by far, “Critical Film Studies” is a combination Pulp Fiction/My Dinner with Andre homage. A pairing that feels like it shouldn’t work, this is a smart, funny, drama-heavy episode that brings us deeper into Abed and Jeff’s relationship (an always-interesting dynamic to explore as Harmon views Jeff and Abed as his two sides).
It’s also an episode that seems to want to prove that all this homaging is more than just a gimmick because look at how Community can create something worthwhile from two very disparate inspirations (although it makes some sense when you think about how chatty Quentin Tarantino films are). “Critical Film Studies” exemplifies the odd, fascinating, and ambitious show Dan Harmon, and only Dan Harmon, could make. When people claim they can’t tell in what way the series was so different with Harmon’s absence in season four, this is the episode I point to by way of explanation.
Season 2 Episode 21: Paradigms of Human Memory
They’re not so much a thing anymore, but clip shows used to be a way for sitcoms to save time and money. The characters would sit around and reminisce about their past antics and then we’d cut to footage of classic moments from older episodes, thus creating a “new” episode composed mostly of stuff we’d already seen.
Never content to do things the easy or budget-conscious way, Community’s clip show episode sees the characters remembering increasingly outlandish events that the audience has never seen before. Personally, it gets a little too inane for my tastes, but this is another fan-favorite and it deserves props for its subversive premise alone.
Season 2 Episode 23-24: A Fistful of Paintballs and For a Few Paintballs More
Paintball is revisited for this two-part finale. It’s a dangerous game to bring back such a great concept and try to make lightning strike twice, but the approach is different enough to justify itself. Where “Modern Warfare” was an action movie, “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” are, maybe you already guessed, westerns.
They’re not as good as “Modern Warfare,” true. They’re less focused (the second episode drops the western motif in favor of a Star Wars kind of thing) and Joe Russo isn’t as dynamic an action director as Justin Lin, but it’s still a funny, rip-roarin’ good time, ending on a dark, dramatic cliffhanger I’ve always loved, in which Pierce implies he may quit the study group for good.
Season 3 Episode 1: Biology 101
Unfortunately, unlike how season two’s premiere smartly dealt with the cliffhanger set up in the finale before it, season three’s premiere lamely tidies away season two’s ending by having Pierce immediately reinsert himself into the group like nothing happened. This can be tied, in part, to the drama going on behind the scenes. For one, Chevy Chase is an infamously difficult person to work with and was gradually becoming ornerier about all the work Community required of him, so the writing team was trying to figure out ways to give his character a reduced, simpler role. Further, Dan Harmon was listening to the criticisms of fans, hearing that many people despised the villain Piece had become in the second season, so he scaled him back to being a more likable grandpa-type.
However, I felt Pierce as villain was the best place for him and that the show never quite found the right way to use him again. The way Pierce’s character was compromised is emblematic of how season three felt somewhat compromised. This is still a worthwhile season of the “good” Community era, but some of it’s a little off. Stuff gets crazier and not always in a good way as characters begin to Flanderize. It’s messy and there’s are more quality fluctuations compared to the more solid seasons that came before, but there’s still a lot of Community greatness in here, too.
“Biology 101” functions well as a tone-setting season premiere. It’s pretty goddamn out there, starting with an insane, self-aware musical number about how the show is going to be less insane this season. Chang (Ken Jeong) is living in the air vents. It ends with Jeff attacking the study room table with an axe. It’s a decent episode, but, yeah, it’s a just a mite over the top, like a lot of season three.
Season 3 Episode 3: Remedial Chaos Theory
Season three is a lot of ups and downs, but, only three episodes in, it pulls off a series’ best. In it, we witness six different potential timelines of how the study group’s night could go. It’s an unbelievably ambitious concept that holds together so, so surprisingly well. The genius of it lies not just in the inventiveness of the premise, but in how elements introduced in earlier timelines are paid off in later ones, so that longer story arcs are formed even though we’re watching the same story restart six different times.
“Remedial Chaos Theory” is a famously great episode, to the point that people who have never seen Community may still have heard about it as fans and critics couldn’t stop talking about how clever it was. It’s also the reason people often refer to the reality we’re living in as the “darkest timeline.” Community didn’t invent the phrase, but it did popularize it.
Season 3 Episode 4: Competitive Ecology
A goofy episode, but one with a premise I adore. It takes our zany ensemble protagonists and adds a new, “normal” character into their world. Through this person’s perspective, we see the characters we’ve come to love as charming weirdos in a new light as the crazy monsters they really are. It’s not a new premise (similarly premised episodes include The Simpsons’ “Homer’s Enemy” and the not-very-good Seinfeld series finale), but Community does a fun take on it, helped along by the wonderful portrayal of normal guy Todd (David Neher), a ridiculously affable war veteran.
Season 3 Episode 7: Studies in Modern Movement
This is an awfully bonkers episode and I have chosen it exclusively because Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” is a central feature of the plot. This makes it necessary viewing. That is all.
Well, okay, it also introduces the Dreamatorium, which returns as a plot device throughout season three.
Season 3 Episode 10: Regional Holiday Music
Mostly a parody of Glee, this is a musical episode. I don’t love musical comedy as a general rule so I don’t love everything about this, but there are a lot of amazing moments throughout. The main reason it’s so good is it features Britta’s awkward Christmas song with the lyrics “me so Christmas, me so merry.”
Season 3 Episode 14: Pillows and Blankets
This is another mockumentary, but this time told in the style of Ken Burns. Picking up from a conflict introduced in the episode before it (the necessary events are recapped here), it sees Troy and Abed turning the campus into a pillow and blanket fort war. It’s fun to see Community parody a new kind of documentary style and it’s an episode about Troy and Abed finally having a falling out, which is a welcome conflict after so many episodes of their infallible, cutesy friendship.
Season 3 Episode 17: Basic Lupine Urology
It’s a Law & Order parody and, well, it’s pretty darn good.
Season 3 Episode 18: Course Listing Unavailable
I don’t have very fond memories (or, really, many memories at all) of this episode, but it sets up the arc that leads to the wonderful season finale, so my hands are tied.
Season 3 Episode 19: Curriculum Unavailable
This is another fake clip show episode, but it worked better for me than the original iteration did because the clips are divided up into themes, so it’s all a touch less inane, or, at least, that’s my memory of it. Sorry, I probably should have watched these again. Look, it’s a decent episode, it’s part of the ending arc, and it features the phrase “crazytown bananapants.”
Season 3 Episode 21: The First Chang Dynasty
This is a heist movie parody and a good lot of fun. Dan Harmon obviously has a major axe to grind with heist movies because he did a Rick and Morty heist episode too. The difference is that episode sucked and this one rules! Also, Britta dresses up like a goth, something which initiated a new era of horny in Community fans.
Season 3 Episode 22: Introduction to Finality
The best season finale that maybe should have been the series finale. Season three was wonky and this finale has to tie up some of its weird plot threads as a result, but, in the end, it manages to ground everything by bringing it all back to the relationships between these characters we’ve grown to love.
It’s also a beautiful finale because it encapsulates what Dan Harmon envisioned for the series going forward. Community was meant to tell a story of change and growth and the ending montage shows us a glimpse of the next stages of every member of the study group’s lives. These images, accompanied by the extended version of the show’s theme song, never fail to get me all choked up.
It’s a great display of where the series was supposed to go next, but it also could’ve worked as a final sendoff for the Greendale Seven.
Season 4 Episode 1: History 101
Instead, however, Community returned with its absolute most garbage season. This is the infamous year in which creator Dan Harmon was fired from his own show. Some writers from previous seasons stayed on, but no one who had been there from the beginning, and there’s a sense that none of those remaining had a real idea of how to keep the series on course. The budget (and number of episodes per season) was reduced and the Russo Brothers also stopped showing up, meaning no more film directors moonlighting on Community, making the series look and feel closer to any other sitcom.
Yes, season three had some unfortunate missteps, as do the later seasons in which Dan Harmon returns, but this is the only season that truly feels like a different show. It’s like Dan Harmon had an understanding of the unspoken rules of the Community universe and, without him there to enforce them, they were broken repeatedly.
You can go ahead and skip this entire season and nothing will be lost, but, in the interest of comprehensiveness, I’m including a handful of episodes that are “best” mostly in demonstrating just how badly season four broke the show. This premiere is one of the easiest and best examples. There was a sense that part of the reason NBC ejected Dan Harmon was that he couldn’t just make a normal, manageable, generic sitcom. However, with him gone, instead of turning the series into something Big Bang Theory-esque for the casual viewer, the folks behind season four bizarrely kept trying to cater to the existing fans without quite knowing how, resulting in a show that appealed to approximately no one.
“History 101” tries to address the elephant in the room (Harmon’s firing was public knowledge at the time) with a meta plotline about Abed trying to adapt to the concept of change. They attempt to do this with a freakish hodgepodge homage assault with references to, among other things, The Hunger Games, Muppet Babies, and (I think?) Inception. It makes for a nightmarish, loud Frankenstein’s monster of a thing that actually made me feel slightly nauseous the first time I watched it. Enjoy!
Season 4 Episode 9: Intro to Felt Surrogacy
In a season that alternates sucking and blowing, I found this episode mildly more tolerable, but that’s beside the point. I’m including it here as an example of how lazy the high-concept stuff got in season four. Even when they didn’t result in great episodes, great pains were always taken to make the concepts in previous seasons make in-universe sense. A good example is season three’s “Digital Estate Planning,” which is done in the style of a pixel-art video game; the story is quite poor, but the reason it takes place in a video game is reasonably explained.
In this one, the study group agrees to do puppet therapy and suddenly they’re all puppets and it’s a musical. The songs are okay, at least.
Season 4 Episode 11: Basic Human Anatomy
The Dean, Jim Rash, is not just a brilliant comedic actor, he’s also an Oscar-winning writer, for the adapted screenplay he cowrote for the 2011 film, The Descendants. Considering all the rules had been thrown out the window along with the show’s creator, it only made sense they let Rash write his own Community episode. How much worse could it get to let an Oscar-winner take a stab at it?
It turned out to be a decent gamble because this is the only episode of the entire season that I remember with any fondness whatsoever. It’s a Freaky Friday parody and, while it’s hardly amazing, it’s far from horrible, and it has at least one great joke sequence.
One of the running mistakes of this season was its attempt to turn Britta and Troy into a romantic couple (in fairness, the previous seasons had set this up). It was a pairing that never worked or felt believable and this episode gets points for acknowledging this and breaking them up. The dissolution of Britta x Troy is the only emotional moment that landed for me in season four, so, hey, not bad, Jim Rash.
Season 5 Episode 1: Repilot
Against all odds, at the urging of Joel McHale and the rest of the cast, Dan Harmon was brought back to helm the final season of Community on NBC. Sadly, it wasn’t a completely triumphant return. The series still had its reduced budget and episode count, which meant Harmon was working with less. Also, Chevy Chase finally wore out his welcome during the previous season, so he was absent from this one (one cameo notwithstanding). Worse still, Donald Glover left the series to work on his own creative projects only five episodes into the season.
However, what really wounded Community was the previous season that kneecapped the intended trajectory Dan Harmon had had for it. He had envisioned the series as one of growth. The first season took place exclusively at Greendale, but subsequent seasons took the study group further and further off-campus. The eventual goal was to evolve these characters from being a study group at a community college to a community in and of themselves.
Season four dashed that idea to pieces, ensconcing the group as students and often neglecting all their prior character development. When Harmon returned, he felt he couldn’t reasonably dismiss the season he was absent for out of hand (although he still kind of did, having the characters wave it away as the “gas leak year”). Believing that it wouldn’t work to continue with his original plan, he instead set about creating a season that would reorient Jeff, Britta, Abed, Shirley, Annie, and Troy as members of the Greendale Community College community. In other words, he tossed out change in favor of familiarity.
Though I understand Harmon’s instincts and, who knows, this may have been the best way to go, there was an unavoidable sense from this point on that Community was treading water. The first three seasons made growth an integral series’ theme and, with that gone, there was something missing. That said, season five still has glimmers of goodness shining through what is admittedly a sadder, lesser season compared to the first three.
The premiere isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s an interesting one just to see how Harmon labored to get this show back on track. It never exactly worked, but it’s not as though he didn’t put in the effort, and this premiere shows that.
Season 5 Episode 3: Basic Intergluteal Numismatics
This is another crime drama episode, this time in the style of director David Fincher (though there’s some other stuff referenced in there, too). It’s not exactly an incredible episode, coming a little too close to already-tread territory for the series, but it’s quite good for late-period Community and is directed beautifully by one of the series’ regular directors, Tristam Shapeero. The plot is about tracking down someone on campus known as the Ass Crack Bandit who’s been dropping quarters down people’s asscracks when they bend over, so there’s a lot of butt jokes, which any decent human being should find funny.
Season 5 Episode 4: Cooperative Polygraphy
As mentioned, Chevy Chase had an unceremonious exit from the series during the previous season and Harmon felt it needed to be addressed, so he dies offscreen and then, in this episode, a lawyer played by Walton Goggins gathers the study group together to read Pierce’s will. It’s interesting to see how the show deals with having to suddenly write the character out without having Chevy Chase around to film a proper ending for him and they do a decent job of it. It’s also a reprise of season two’s classic bottle episode, as the gang stays in the study room the whole time.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not as good as that episode, but it’s still one of the best and funniest of the season, based on the solid premise of how Pierce is still able to turn the group against one another even without physically being there.
Season 5 Episode 5: Geothermal Escapism
This is where we say goodbye to Troy as Donald Glover left the show to become extremely successful in, like, every conceivable way. Dan Harmon has later admitted that this was where he believes Community died. I understand the sentiment; Troy is, if not the heart of the group, one of the bigger, more important hearts, but, substantively, the show didn’t actually die here because, well, there are still twenty-one episodes left.
I agree this was a big blow to the series, but it’s just one piece of Community’s demise, which was a tragically slow, drawn-out process that began with Dan Harmon’s firing and was then gradually worsened by budget cuts, cast departures, and other production woes. It was death by a thousand cuts.
Still, Troy leaving is a huge deal and it’s important to see how Community handles it. Sadly, I think it does a pretty bad job. His reason for leaving is he’s going to… sail around the world… on a boat… with LeVar Burton. Um… yep. I mean, it’s set up so it makes sense, kind of, but still, huh? Also, the actual episode is a Mad Max style parody centered around a campus-wide “the floor is lava” game. It’s not exactly another paintball episode, but it feels a lot like it’s trying to be another paintball episode in spirit and it’s not nearly as good as the ones from season one and two (season four’s finale is also a paintball episode but we shall not speak its name).
It still pulls at the heartstrings, however, and, not for nothing, Britta does get a lot of good screen time here.
Season 5 Episode 7: Bondage and Beta Male Sexuality
He disappeared for two seasons, but John Oliver plays a recurring character on Community (he’s even in the pilot), as a lazy professor who (at least in this season) really wants to get with Britta. It’s odd the way this season plops him alongside the rest of the study group like he’s a part of it, but at least they have an episode that uses him well.
The longer Community went, the crazier it got, often leaning on its concept-driven episodes too regularly. This, however, is a grounded episode with meaningful character exploration, which, at this late stage, qualifies it for this list.
It’s also worthwhile because it introduces the in-universe comic “Jim the Duck,” a comic about an unlucky duck who says “What the hell?” as the punchline of every strip. The comic is drawn by Buzz Hickey, the character who was transparently brought in to fill the hole left by Pierce. He’s a regular throughout the season, but I’m only just mentioning him now, sorry. He’s played by Jonathan Banks, aka Mike from Breaking Bad. He’s a decent character, but he’s also basically just Mike if he were a professor. His character is sort of a goofy insert, but Jim the Duck is still one of Community’s best inventions.
Season 5 Episode 8: App Development and Condiments
After the firing debacle the previous season, Harmon and team were largely left alone for his season back and, when the execs weren’t looking, he went and made a Logan’s Run parody episode. It’s an especially stupid one; the campus gets a makeover that kind of just looks like someone draped sheets everywhere and then shone multicolored lights through them, which, yeah, is fairly accurate to Logan’s Run.
It is an intensely absurd premise in which a new social hierarchy is formed based around a new app called MeowMeowBeenz (I’m assuming Black Mirror has done a similar episode by now). Also, one of the big plot points is that everyone takes Britta more seriously when she has mustard smeared on her face. Luckily, it’s funny, and includes a surprisingly entertaining guest performance from Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz as a mature lothario student called Koogler. It’s one of Community’s weirdest, dumbest episodes that still works.
Season 6 Episode 3: Basic Crisis Room Decorum
After all the rocky production drama Community went through without NBC ever just canceling the damn thing, it seemed untouchable. That perception turned out to be naïve as they finally did cancel the damn thing after season five.
Unfortunately that sense of invincibility had affected the show behind the scenes and season five culminated in a limp reheating of the Dungeons & Dragons concept (the network hated the original and tried to stop it from happening); a befuddling, self-indulgent G.I. Joe homage that everyone but me thought was good (everyone but me is wrong); followed by a positively atrocious, tonally smug, two-part finale featuring Chris Elliott as a dude who lives underneath the school and has an emotion-processing computer he powers up by rubbing his own nipples. The latter might be the worst thing Dan Harmon has ever produced, so bad it made you wonder if the Harmon-less season four wasn’t deserving of all the hate it got (I still believe it was, for the record).
Anyway, it seemed like that was the final curtain call for Community, but then, salvation came, as it always does these days for canceled shows, from the internet, as Yahoo! bought the series. “What? Yahoo! makes TV shows?” says you? Why, no, they most certainly don’t, says I. Not anymore, anyhow!
Yahoo! Screen was their attempted foray into television and, after airing a revived season of Community, a Paul Feig sci-fi comedy, and some other stuff no one remembers, the service promptly died forever. So, yes, indeed, this was the sixth and final season of Community, bringing it one step closer to fulfilling its self-proclaimed, in-joke mantra “six seasons and a movie.”
It’s a decidedly odd duck of a season. Complaints about season five being too homage-heavy led to Dan Harmon attempting to bring it back to just being a show about a group of people in a college, but it was too far down the line for that to fully work. This was unavoidably a series scrambling to find ways to outdo itself and stay interesting, so it’s still a lot crazier and messier than in its golden age.
The production hiccups, the move to Yahoo!, the continued loss of characters, and the feeling that this really probably was the end for real this time imbue season six with a subtly tragic, solemn tone, despite all the zany hijinks. Yvette Nicole Brown had to leave due to family issues, so Shirley, Troy, and Pierce are now all absent. Jonathan Banks also left and, though he wasn’t a cast staple until last season, the rapid actor-swapping still has a sense of desperation about it.
The attempt to patch up these leaks comes in the form of new characters Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster) and Elroy Patashnik (Keith David). They both do their best (David, especially, gets some shining moments) and fit alongside the rest of the cast well enough, but the feeling that Community is not Community without the original principals never goes away.
A personal bugbear and something that also drags this season down is the overlong runtimes. The move to the internet means Community is unencumbered by the previous 23-minute limit imposed upon it by network advertising and, while I’m not saying 21 to 23 minutes is the irrefutably perfect amount of time for a sitcom, I do believe that when a show has been clocking in at a specific length for multiple seasons, it messes up the flow to suddenly change it (especially in the case of comedy, which relies on timing and punchiness). It’s not as out of control as the unbridled lengths of the abysmal Arrested Development Netflix seasons (some of those episodes go over 40 minutes), but most of these are nearly full half-hours. The slower pace contributes to the somberness that hangs over season five.
“Basic Crisis Room Decorum” is an episode about Greendale trying to squash a controversy that they once awarded a degree to a dog. It’s not an incredible episode, but it’s a decent showing that paints a good picture of what season six was like when it was more on than off. There are some okay heart-to-hearts and it’s got a hilarious running gag about the Dean believing he’s romantically texting with Jeff when actually it’s some boys in Japan pranking him.
It does, sadly, also reveal the consistent problem with season six that carried over from season five: a lack of purpose. The characters don’t seem to have anywhere to go from here with their only vague motivation being to “fix problems” that crop up at Greendale.
Season 6 Episode 6: Basic Email Security
This is the final entry in the bottle episode trilogy (though it’s only the middle act that takes place in one location) and I’m glad I’m able to say that Community never ran this concept into the ground. The idea of gathering all the characters in one location and having them angrily hash out their differences remained a strong and entertaining go-to premise till the end. It’s also a very strong Britta episode.
Season 6 Episode 11: Modern Espionage
Yes, Community returns to the paintball well one final time for a spy movie homage. The actiony bits look suitably cool and actiony, it’s well-paced despite being a long season six episode, and Kumail Nanjiani is a lovely guest star. It’s far from the best paintball episode, but what’s important is it’s miles better than the horrid season four attempt, which would’ve been the final paintball episode, had this not one not come along.
Season 6 Episode 13: Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television
Season six was a somewhat sad affair, the twilight era of a smart, beloved sitcom drying up creatively, hobbled by its bumpy production past and compounding cast losses. Though it was nice Community got its prophesized sixth season, it was kind of like having an old pet around: you still love them, but you can tell they’ve slowed down, they’re not all there the way they once were, and a painful ending is on the horizon.
And with its series finale, Community doesn’t shy away from that pain; it leans into it, hard. Starting in season four, the show had forgotten what had made it special was change—characters always evolving and the scope gradually expanding outside of the confines of Greendale Community College. They’d been treading water for two seasons with a bland “save Greendale” mission statement, but “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television” acknowledges they can’t do this forever. At some point, we all—the characters, the cast, the crew, and the fans—have to move on.
It’s a finale for the fans who have stayed with Community all this time. It’s way up its own butt, but this far along, it’s earned the right to be, with its meta premise of the study group sitting around dreaming up their own idealized versions of what another season would look like. The fourth wall is all but invisible with all the dialogue about the characters’ futures blatantly doubling as commentary about the series itself. They ask themselves, and us, would there be a point in going on? It’s sad to end it, but would it not be sadder to drag this thing out for another year?
Season three’s finale still made for a stronger ending, but this is a close second. Community season four onward is almost never Community at its best, but this finale is a radiant exception. It’s a funny, clever, melancholy, and beautiful ending to this brilliant, unique show.
At least until the movie.